A bill would forbid lawmakers from adding money to cover any Highway 99 cost overruns in a forthcoming state transportation plan.
It would also reinforce the earlier spending limit of $2.4 billion in state funds, approved in 2009 when the Legislature chose a deep-bore tunnel to replace the fragile Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Any day now, the Senate is expected to propose a transportation package worth $10 billion to $12 billion, primarily from gas taxes of up to 12 cents a gallon, plus bond debt. It would support highway expansions, road maintenance, ferries, local revenue-sharing, transit grants and other uses. And unlike past versions, the plan would not include tolls on the Interstate 90 floating bridge, adding instead $1 billion in taxes to cover the unfunded Seattle segment of the Highway 520 floating bridge project.
Highway 99 costs are a high-profile matter, because tunnel-boring machine Bertha has been stuck for more than a year, with repairs planned this spring. Currently, there’s around $140 million in contingency funds left in the tunnel’s Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) budget, but huge claims are on the way from contractors, while about 8,000 feet of tunneling lies ahead.
Senate Bill 5949 represents a tighter policy than the 2009 bill, which was viewed by some as merely a tool to fend off exorbitant add-ons by Seattle. This bill clarifies that lawmakers intend to slam the door on paying overruns during WSDOT’s own construction work. Given that a contract is signed, and Seattle Tunnel Partners is litigious, taxpayers won’t know for certain whether the state actually can hold the line, until future years.
But by telling constituents they oppose more Highway 99 spending, supporters might have a freer hand to vote for painful gas-tax increases. Sponsors include conservative Don Benton, R-Vancouver and vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee; Senate President pro-tem Pam Roach, R-Auburn; and Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who co-sponsored a failed bill to kill the tunnel project.
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